Mars reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

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It’s her last year of high school and Hannah Eaden is just trying to finish up her senior year with a smile before she and her tight-knit group of friends scatter across the country to go to college. While she’ll miss her little sister and her goofy boyfriend, the shy nerd with the kind smile, and the non-stereotypical quarterback, the one she’ll miss most of all is her best friend Baker, senior class president and the apple of everyone’s eye. Baker understands her; knows her quirks, has a secret dedicated playlist for her on her phone, and gets the kind of milkshake she knows Hannah likes because that’s just the kind of friend she is. With Baker being as sweet as a button, how could Hannah help but fall for her?

If I’ve made you think this story is all sunshine and rainbows and Catholic school without all of the intense moral discourse, think again. Desire versus faith, fear versus love, this story does not shy away from the dark edges of what happens when a lifetime of internalized dogma grapples with feelings that ache with honesty. While there are moments of levity as readers get to know Hannah, Baker, and their close friends (the self-declared Six-Pack), be warned that there are many moments when Quindlen goes for the jugular with your feelings.  

Late at night, after her parents and Joanie have already gone to sleep, she drives to City Park and sits in her car beneath the canopy of trees. She looks up at these trees and marvels at their existence, at how they just are what they were created to be, how they tower proudly on their wooden trunks, how they sway in the breeze and move their leaves like piano keys, and she prays that she can be like them, that she can innately grasp her existence and live it out without questioning.

Am I wrong? she asks. Just tell me if I am.

She never receives an answer.

The story is told from Hannah’s perspective, and we follow with clutched pearls as her year goes from good to worse to awful to actually surprisingly okay. There are moments when the author has your eyes racing across the page, and the characters themselves are as believable as they are compelling. Kids do reckless things, and characters act out of fear in ways that make you want to shake them (as they are wont to). The story of a deep love for a best friend slipping seamlessly into something more is as natural and timeless as gay ladies themselves.

At its essence, this story is a familiar one (my running notes were filled with #relatable) so I feel like it’s really important to state this part outright: it’s going to be okay. This is not going to be another one of Those Stories, and while the adults in this story are as flawed as grown-ups in real life, they are also just as redeeming.

Her Name in the Sky deals with a lot of fear and what I’ve been told is a lot of Catholic Guilt. This book isn’t necessarily for the light-hearted. While the author does a good job of starting us out with a playful and loving friend group, there are some really heavy moments as senior year marches on and the specter of prom draws closer. We are dealing with homosexuality in a very religious context, and the author never lets us lose sight of the fact that these characters are desperate as they grapple with reconciling their earnest faith with their desires.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you’re in the mood for a cry with a happy ending. The author also has an active tumblr which includes links to HNITS fanfiction, fan art, adorable original one-shots, and a free preview of the first three chapters.

 

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Daughter of Makha by Nel Havas

I look across the years in astonishment, for in the distance I see a simple, trusting girl. She is a stranger to me, yet she is familiar; her land alien, but it is mine. In unbroken chain, hand-in-hand with ghosts of myself, over the days and the hours, over years measured in heartbeats, I am linked to her.

Daughter of Makha is a retelling of the biblical story of the epic of Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-19). In the original story, Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother. When her father does nothing to punish him, Tamar’s mother and brother plot revenge (and attempt to seize power), which tears the family apart and leaves a large death toll. Tamar serves only as a catalyst n the narrative, disappearing quickly after that. Daughter of Makha expands on this character, exploring what this must have looked like for Tamar, who is trapped in a family tearing itself apart.

This is the third of Nel Havas’s books that I’ve reviewed at the Lesbrary, and although this book departs from the Ancient Egypt setting of the previous two, I can see the parallels in these stories. Like her Egyptian novels, Daughter of Makha has a matter-of-fact writing style and features thorough research–though sometimes that research veers into info dump territory, describing every road the characters take and its landmarks, or dropping in some historical story that doesn’t quite match up with the narrative.

All three books also feature court intrigue and elaborate plots to gain power. The women, especially, in these novels scheme to gain influence. They may not have a lot of legal power, but they use the resources available to manipulate their circumstances, whether it’s to shore up power, peace, or protection for their family. Makha and Bathsheba are the principal players here–both wives of King David, both trying to ensure that their son becomes the heir. But they are not the only women using whatever influence they have: Tamar spends the novel trying to turn the course of history, attempting to prevent bloodshed. I was especially impressed by the quiet shrewdness of Shoshana, who finds a way to protect her (and Absalom’s) sons no matter the outcome of the war.

Although it is the wrong against Tamar that launches this war, she is horrified by it. She doesn’t get a say in her mother and brother’s revenge plan, and it becomes obvious that they are acting for their own gain more than any attempt to defend her “honor.” I thought that Havas captured the terrible and engrossing power of war. Tamar is continually disgusted by her loved ones’ blood lust, but the battle is brutal and bloody and giddy—it inspires a morbid fascination.

As for the queer content, it comes in about half way through the book. Hana is a few years older than Tamar and has acted as a pseudo servant/caretaker/surrogate sister role at various times in Tamar’s life. They are reunited after a long separation, and they travel together to try to prevent the final battle. Hana crossdresses, disguising herself as a warrior to defend them from any conflicts on the road. Their relationship has subtly shifted; they both seem to have grown since they were last together, and they see each other with new eyes. I did like the slow build of their relationship—the tentative flirtation—but I wish there was a little bit more of it. [spoiler] Specifically, I wish there was more detail of their relationship from the end of the battle to their happily ever after. They seem to kiss for the first time, separate… and then a while passes and they’ve grown old together. I’d like to see more of their fumbling first steps in their relationship. [end spoiler]

And, of course, I have to mention their donkey, Pimi. Pimi is with them on their journey, and she’s an adorable animal sidekick.

I do have some criticisms, however. Like Nel Havas’s other books, I think the strength of the story is in the ideas and broad strokes. It could benefit from more intense editing. For instance, some paragraphs are a few lines, while others take up more than an entire page. Although overall I though the second half of the book was more interesting, some of the travel could be condensed, especially by not describing every single road they took. I was also surprised that [spoiler] Ahithophel’s suicide is casually mentioned and isn’t really a plot point.[/spoiler] Also, I know this is based on a Bible story, so arguably you can’t really “spoil” the ending, but on page 300, right before the final battle begins, the narration gives away who wins the battle, which takes away some of the tension in the moment.

And finally, a few warnings. This is based on a Bible story, but it is from an atheistic perspective. Characters (especially Makha) scoff at these beliefs, and there doesn’t seem to be any character who is religious and also a good person. I will also include a trigger warning for Tamar’s rape, which is described in some detail.

I am not a religious person, so I was not very familiar with this story, but reading the Bible story and Daughter of Makha back-to-back was a very interesting experience. I appreciated how Havas gave Tamar (and the other women of the story) agency, even when they were restricted by both misogyny and story constraints.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Marthese reviews The Housing Crisis by Kate McLay

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“She transformed from sullen hipster to beautiful girl”

I don’t tend to read many contemporaries but the plot in this novella sounded interesting. The Housing Crisis is set in Chicago and follows Alyssa, who’s suddenly one roommate short and Hannah, who needs to find alternative lodging soon after a break-up. Hannah is sure of her sexuality and queerness, Alyssa never questioned her sexuality.

From the very first time they meet, they click and soon move in together and thus the housing crisis for both is resolved. What isn’t resolved is the growing tension between the two. Hannah has a crush on Alyssa and this is made clear from the beginning, however, Alyssa’s feelings aren’t to be discarded.

Alyssa comes from a very conservative background. Despite this, even before meeting Hannah, Alyssa made her own choices and formed her own believes which were not always in line with her family’s. I think that this independent thinking that does not arise from co-dependency is great. I was pleasantly surprised with Alyssa’s character and behavior. She isn’t the catholic-girl-from-a-small-town that you would expect her to be. She has guts, is spunky and although she is afraid, she fights for what she wants.

Hannah has had a bad experience with being in a relationship with a ‘straight’ girl but although she thinks she should knows better, her feelings for Alyssa cannot be ignored. She is honest about her past relationship from the beginning, in fact in this novella there wasn’t drama based on misunderstandings that is often used to create tension.

In the story, there is also a trans character. This character was not there simply for tokenism but plays a key part in a plot twist that is a bit far-fetched but not unrealistic.

The only thing that I did not like in the story was the implications on sexuality. Granted, this is something that most people think but as someone that identifies on the ace spectrum, it irked me that when it was clear that Alyssa had a lack of experience in sexual history, there was the implication that she is missing out on a lot and that everyone wants sex.

Alyssa’s and Hannah’s interactions are honest, emotional and mature but still gleeful. They do not beat around the bush and although there is some tension, there is no drama.

The story was not just about their relationship but also on their work careers, they are both having break through and want success while supporting each other.

All these elements make this short story very refreshing. It’s a quick read and their relationship progress was cute and not boring.

I would recommend this to people that enjoy contemporary and romance books or wish to read a drama free (or less dramatic) story about two people in love.

Megan Casey Reviews Whacked by Josie Gordon

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Lonnie Squires has an unusual profession for a lesbian mystery protagonist; she is an Episcopal priest. As far as I know, Joan Albarella’s Nikki Barnes is the only other woman of the cloth in lesbian mystery fiction. In fact, it is unusual to find religious references at all in the genre other than casual references to “the goddess” is some of the earlier, more feminist novels. As we know, most churches have not treated the LGBT community with respect, but if you have a calling, you have a calling and the Episcopal Church has been more queer-friendly than most.

Even so, author Gordon makes is clear early that Lonnie’s “calling” had more to do with the fact that the church had a women’s soccer team than any burning bush experience. In her relatively short career as a priest, Lonnie has become known for her ability to effect reconciliation; to smooth out differences between members of the church. When her bishop promises to give her her own rectory if she will travel to Eastern Michigan to mediate between two splitting factions, she jumps at the chance. Little does she know that she will become embroiled in a murder.

Although I’m not someone who likes a lot of praying in my novels, I confess to being a fan of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. I also confess to finding Whacked enjoyable and strangely satisfying. But that satisfaction didn’t come easy. I found the setup to the mystery to be clumsy and less than plausible. For one thing, Lonnie lies to the police to protect someone she has met only half an hour before. Then she breaks into the murdered man’s house (before the police think of it, mind you) and finds a clue that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Having said that, it is absolutely essential that she do these things—there is no plot without them. But if I gave real star ratings for these books, Gordon would lose a healthy part of one for forcing the plot in this way. She knows she’s doing it; when Lonnie finds the clue, she thinks to herself, why is this here? Yet its presence is never actually explained. Likewise, a sheriff’s deputy, after a casual look at the body, tells Lonnie that he was killed with a shovel and that the shovel had been taken away. But if it had been taken away, how did he know it was a shovel, especially since it turned out to be an unusual kind of shovel? This is actually a major flaw in a mystery novel because most astute readers would assume that the deputy must be the killer. And this shovel is very important to the rest of the book.

Still, I like Lonnie and disliked her partner Jamie, as I was meant to—just about everything Jamie does in the book is disrespectful to Lonnie. I liked the description of the small Eastern Michigan town, especially its Dutch traditions and odd-sounding cuisine. I liked the insider look at the old Episcopal Church, and I very much admired the way that Gordon managed to use soccer metaphors throughout the book. Such as when Lonnie is questioning one of the suspects and thinks she may be about to learn something important: “This felt like a breakaway on an open net, though I knew the defenders were right behind me and gaining.” Her use of this extended metaphor is among the best I have ever seen—and that is saying something.

Lonnie’s philosophy of reconciliation not only goes to the heart of the novel, but to the heart of our society, divided now more than ever before: “Love had great power. People could do great goodness with the love they felt, once they got past anger and fear.” I’m willing to give Whacked the benefit of it being Gordon’s first attempt and I’m looking forward to seeing whether in Toasted, the next novel in the series, my feeling is justified.

For other reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

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Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.

Jess reviews Facing the Music by Jennifer Knapp

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Despite the recent conservative controversy surrounding Vicky Beeching’s coming out, the Christian community is no stranger to revered spiritual musicians coming out. Jennifer Knapp’s memoir Facing The Music is a soul-searching, earnest examination of the Christian music scene and self discovery including her own coming out in 2010.

Knapp begins her life as a twin in a dysfunctional and divided household. As her parents were separated, she spent her youth navigating the complex conditions of custody, living predominantly with her father and step-mother and occasionally holidaying with her mother. Her first love is discovered and passionately explored as she teaches herself trumpet and becomes enamoured with music. Not being musical myself but living with a musician, I was enthralled in Knapp’s diligent and often demanding relationship with instruments. In fact, her first decision to learn an instrument comes at the direct expense of her limited time with her mum. Her passion continues as she breathes in instrument after instrument, ultimately leading her to study music teaching at college.

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After a period as a wild child, filled with sexual exploits and significant alcoholism (not explicitly explored), Knapp falls for the grace of God and begins to party Christian style; with worship music and religious conversation. Her account for her rise to Christian ‘rock-star’ status is told passively, as though everything just happened around her; her own involvement often reluctant and riddled with self-doubt. I feel this early Christian experience is written through the lens of a changed woman and wonder about the difference in explanation if one had been able to be transcribed at the time. Yet, this is how all memoirs are written; by the hands of current understanding, so I need not fault Knapp for that.

As a Christian myself, I recognised many of the evangelical experiences Knapp described and would advise non-Christian readers not to be put off by this inside look at the Contemporary Christian music scene. Her insights are often darkly described, almost in despising tones and I think Christians will have a harder time processing Knapp’s truths then non-religious individuals.

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Two thirds into Facing The Music, Knapp addresses her sexuality, her withdrawal from the Christian music scene and life as she knows it. She isn’t one to kiss and tell, so if you are hoping for long paragraphs of lesbian liaisons, this isn’t the love story for you. Instead, she recounts her internal coming out experience and the feelings associated with identifying as both gay and Christian, both personally and within the public  eye.

Knapp’s memoir is also littered with unexpected interesting insights, including her involvement with signing Katy Perry as well as adventures in outback Australia.

Personally, I strongly related to her difficulty fitting into certain circles in Christian churches, wearing cargo pants instead of skirts at church services. I also understood her difficulty with self-acceptance and the shame often associated with sharing an experience that strays from the acceptable testimony within church circles. I applaud her personal strength and faith to share her own story and to take her own time to do so.

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Facing The Music is written with honesty, integrity and emotion and will likely captivate fans, memoir readers, Christians and the questioning masses.

For those who enjoy Jennifer Knapp’s memoir, I would strongly recommend Chely Wright’s memoir Like Me, which explores coming out within the conservative country music world. You can also view the documentary Wish Me Away which follows Chely before and after coming out.

If you are looking for music to listen to while reading, Jennifer Knapp’s new album Set Me Free (released by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records) is just out.

Anna reviews Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace


Rum Spring, by Yolanda Wallace, was published last December by Bold Strokes Books. I have read zero of those extremely popular heterosexual Amish romances, so I have no idea how Rum Spring stacks up, but when I read the tagline of the blurb (“Love or tradition? Which path will she choose?”) I was intrigued. The title refers to “rumspringa,” the Amish tradition of having teenagers venture into the modern world for several years before they commit themselves to the church.

Rebecca Lapp has been friends with Englisher Dylan Mahoney for most of her life, getting to know the other girl despite a language barrier and the restrictions placed upon her by her rigid faith. She knows quite well that her destiny is to marry an Amish boy and spend the rest of her life in her small Pennsylvania town, despite her interest in Dylan and the outside world. Dylan has been in love with Rebecca for years, and has been waiting impatiently for the Amish girl to turn sixteen and begin her rumspringa, hoping that the long list of activities she has created for them (which has enough items to span a lifetime) will help persuade Rebecca to choose Dylan over her family and the only life she has ever known.

The conflict between Rebecca’s feelings for Dylan and her conservative upbringing feels very real, and the consequences are serious. If Rebecca is caught with Dylan, or chooses to leave the church to spend her life as an outsider, she will lose her parents, her other family members, and the religion that has shaped her entire life. Although she admits her love for Dylan to herself and consummates their relationship on her rumspringa, after Rebecca’s sister Sarah is shunned for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she believes that she must remain with her family and commit to the church to fill the void left by her sister. As Dylan struggles to accept that they must forever remain only friends, Rebecca comes to believe that she must be true to herself, no matter the consequences.

Rum Spring feels a lot like a YA novel, not just for the high school and college scenes (Rebecca and Dylan go to the prom!) but because of the themes of growth and change and “coming of age.” The few sex scenes are well and tastefully done–logical extensions of Dylan and Rebecca’s feelings for one another. Rebecca is definitely a more sympathetic character than Dylan, whose determination to woo Rebecca comes off as a bit controlling (see the aforementioned list, which does not seem to allow Rebecca a great deal of independent thought). And her life is, seemingly, less fraught; Dylan’s family is perfectly accepting of who she is, despite being Catholic. [spoiler] One of the disappointing things about Rum Spring was its relatively easy denouement, which lessened the impact of the narrative buildup with its sweetness. This kind of rose-colored glasses perspective appears elsewhere in Wallace’s narrative:

Dylan had to admit her Catholic faith didn’t have the greatest track record when it came to gays and lesbians, but she thought the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Her parish priest, for one, was incredibly understanding and accepting. Perhaps the pope would eventually share his progressive views (148).

Perhaps this is simply reflective of Dylan’s naive optimism where sociopolitical issues are concerned, but I believe it is reflective of Wallace’s overall message, which seems sweetly unrealistic. I would have preferred a bittersweet ending–in which Rebecca has lost everything she thought she needed, but gained a lasting love (which would have been the best payoff for the dilemma Wallace set up)–to one in which they are able to kiss openly in a room that contains all of their family members, both Amish and English. Apparently I am an incurable cynic. [end spoiler]

Aside from the letdown at the end, I found the book well-written and the characters interesting. If you are fascinated by the Amish and rumspringa, looking for a story of young love triumphing over obstacles, or interested in lesbian romance with strong young adult overtones, Rum Spring might be just the book for you.

Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde was kind enough to read Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with me, and then we discussed it together. I tried to mark the spoilers (ones just marked “spoilers” are just for Down to the Bone, and spoilers for other books are indicated) so that you have to highlight to read them. I’m sorry if you read the unedited version; it posted too quickly!

Danika: Hmm, I guess I’ll just throw out some general impressions and we can expand from there. Well, I was stunned by how fast-moving it is. The first chapter could stretch the whole novel for most of the lesbian teen books I’ve been reading. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a positive or negative for me. Not only do a lot of things happen in the book (which I like), but they all happen very quickly. There’s not really any room to absorb what’s happening. Of course, if she had spaced out the action, it would be a very, very long book.

I loved the culture in Down To the Bone (what’s with the title, anyway?). I’m so used to reading the same sort of story over and over (middle-class white girl come out), so I really appreciated getting this glimpse into Cuban culture in Miami (is that right, Miami?). The Spanish phrases thrown in flow perfectly, and I didn’t feel the need to consult the glossary at the back (actually, I didn’t realize it had one until I finished it).

It was also interesting to see the family dynamic. I spent the book hating her mother so much that I couldn’t understand why she would want to be around her. It’s also unusual that we have a story where the protagonist is thrown out of the house (which is something that happens way too often in real life, but is rarely represented in our novels), but she’s not actually homeless. She has these competing forces of a completely intolerant mother and classmates, but fantastic friends who are willing to take her in and take care of her, not to mention the brother that adores her.

I was on the fence about the representations of trans people in Down To the Bone. I appreciated that there was some mention, but at times it seemed disrespectful. I wish I could remember specific instances now, but it really was a whirlwind.

This is definitely completely different from Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin, and I’m really happy to see that diversity. I think its strength and weakness is that it does seem more true to real life. There’s so much going on, and a whole fleet of characters being introduced and leaving at any given point, which can be hard to follow and overwhelming, but it’s also more honest and relatable, maybe even more interesting.

Rie:Isn’t it just? I can’t believe how fast it moved, for how long it was, but I also didn’t want it to end. Some plot threads (whatever happened to El Gringo?)  did seem to wander off into the blue yonder, but life’s like that; sometimes your friend has a new boy for the blink of an eye. What struck me about the novel as a whole is that it’s very, for lack of a better word, teenager-y. Sure, they are excellent novels that have an authentic teen voice, this book really immersed me in the worldview of an actual teenager. Their days fly by, they love things passionately, they describe themselves by what they like. It’s a very endearing quality, though I do agree that sometimes I would have liked to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit.

In the very last paragraph, Laura says that she feels loved down to the bone. 😀 The original title was Act Natural after the scene where Tazer is talking about his friend’s screenplay. Mom discovers her daughter in bed with another girl, and one of them yells “Act natural! Act natural!” It’s a good title, but too subtle for teen readers, I think.

Doles got some criticism for the book, that the emotions ran too high and the story was too dramatic. What did you think? I can speak from personal experience, raised Italian-Roman-Catholic, that no, that’s not an exaggeration, not at all. My family is a little bit more open-minded:  they want me to ” Mother of God, Mary most holy, please marry a nice Italian girl, no more  mamadell’ puttannas [skanky bitches].”

Speaking of, wasn’t it interesting to read about a queer teen with such a strong support network? I read another coming-out book whose climax was much like this book’s opening, but she ended up in a home for gay teens that had been kicked out–even the school guidance counselor had a vendetta against her! There was something really comforting in reading about Laura making a new family with people who aren’t blood family. I also think it’s important to have a narrative where friend-family picks up when your blood family can’t be trusted because they stop loving you.

And how awesome was it that Laura [spoilers] stuck up for herself and said she’d continue her relationship with her little bro, no matter what? [/spoilers] They were so cute together and it broke my heart when he talked about how it was terrible that he couldn’t see her or her puppy, and he was being punished even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Regarding trans folk in Down to the Bone, when I got a little cranky about certain words and how they were used, what helped me was thinking of the story through Laura’s eyes instead of immediately thinking OMG MAYRA LAZARA DOLES IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. 😛 She’s 16 and completely new to the Miami queer scene, of course she doesn’t get that feminizing a genderqueer dude could be really disorienting for him. To his credit, Tazer took it in stride, and having him want to change for her showed his youth; don’t we all have the experience of wanting to be different for someone we really care about?

Also, how hot is Tazer? It’s been a couple years since the book came out, he’s legal now. 😀

Danika: I felt the same. When I picked it up I was like “Wow… that’s a big teen book”, but it really whipped along, and it could have even been longer. Yeah, exactly: it felt very true to real teen experiences, though that can be a little intimidating to rad.

Oooh, okay. That makes sense, I must have just missed it. I think I would have preferred Act Natural, but Down to the Bone works too. I thought that scene was hilarious.

Hmmm, it’s funny, because apparently Beth Goobie got some criticism for her book Hello, Groin (the last joint review I did) for being too cheery, which it really isn’t, since she spends the whole book struggling with her sexuality. I really don’t think you can win. The problem is that idea of the problem of one story. If you’re taking any book to be a representation of all people’s experiences, than it’s never going to live up to that. But if you take it as just one story of many, it makes more sense. I think that it’s an exaggeration for some people, but totally accurate for others, and since we so rarely see those stories (being kicked out when you come out, having a Cuban and Catholic family), I think it’s really important to represent that side of things. Some people are genuinely that emotional, and there’s no reason that their story shouldn’t be told. Besides, I got a definite semi-autobiographical scent off Down to the Bone, so I doubt Dole’s story is far off from her own (she’s also originally from Cuba and moved to Miami).

Yes, I thought that was really interesting. It was a good balance, because we got the story of “What if your parent/s don’t take it well? What if you get kicked out? What if they never come around?” without having it turn to utter despair. And considering how sickeningly often that happens to queer kids, I love that Down to the Bone offered an alternation to “blood” family, showing that there is more than one place to find safety and community. I’m definitely of the belief that “blood” is not nearly as important as how you are treated. I see stories about people who just keep coming back and begging for their intolerant families to accept them, and it makes me sad, because they deserve better. You’re right, it’s a good representation of chosen family, and of how you can find acceptance and community where you aren’t expecting it (Soli’s mom has a similar religious and cultural background as Laura’s mom, but doesn’t think it’s in opposition to accepting Laura).

Aaaww, I know, the little brother part was so hard, because I wanted her to just ditch her mom, but she loved her little brother so much! [spoilers] I’m glad she refused to compromise there and realized her own strength. [/spoilers]

It’s true, it does make more sense when you realize that Laura is unsure of what she’s talking about, but it still was a little flinch-worthy at times. Yes, it totally makes sense that Tazer would be willing to compromise a bit because he likes Laura. He was really laid back about everything, actually, far more than I would be. (You don’t want to be seen with me in public?! No, I’m not going to just put up with that.)

Rie: It’s funny–if you go back over the text with the original title in mind, you can see characters making comments about acting natural or what is natural and what’s good, and why people believe different things.

I’ve just read Hello, Groin myself (and Annie on My Mind is an old friend), so I’ve been thinking about the three protagonists, all lesbian, all around the same age, and how they approached their sexuality. It’s remarkable how much of a difference almost 30 years makes, no? But at the same time, how sad that teens still struggle with the same issues. Laura, for all of her insecurity about her sexuality, seems to be the most self-aware of the three. She has a very solid sense of who she is, and what she wants. Her comments about how Tazer is too sexually and emotionally agressive, and how she wants an equal partnership in bed and out of it, just floored me. It’s a very mature distinction to make in a relationship. Dylan has a healthier, more progressive awareness of queer sexuality itself, but Laura is more mature overall, more than likely from dealing with the death of her father and taking care of her family while her mother worked three jobs.
 
Speaking of, I saw the death of her father being one of the main reasons why she wanted to go back to her family, that unspoken feeling that her family was broken enough, and she didn’t want to lose what she had left. It does not excuse her mother’s behavior, but I understand why Laura was so desperate to seek her approval, especially since it seemed like she had a pretty decent relationship with her Mami before she found out.
 
Can we talk about Laura, Liza, and Dylan, and their choice in partners? [spoilers for Hello Groin, Annie On My Mind, and Down to the Bone] All three books end with the protagonist happily paired off, and [/spoilers] the relationships themselves have some striking similarities, but also key differences. Laura, for all her maturity, has a very [spoilers for Down to the Bone and Annie On My Mind] Liza-and-Annie storybook relationship with Gisela [/spoilers], while Dylan [spoilers for Hello, Groin] got together with her best friend, only now they kiss. [/spoilers] To be honest, I never quite saw what Dylan saw in Joc; she’s an old and true friend, but Dylan is such a curious, intelligent girl and Joc is kind of a flake (though I much admire her bravery and championing of the underdog, which happened a few times in Hello, Groin.).

Danika: Ooh, I’d like to re-read it with that in mind. Fascinating.

Oh good! I’m glad we can compare them, then! Hmm, I’m not sure which one I would consider the most mature… Laura does seem very self-aware, but all three of them are pretty introspective. Dylan is more aware of queer sexuality than Liza and Laura, maybe, but I think Laura is the only one to really find any sort of home in the queer community. Yes, Liza [spoilers for Annie On My Mind] has mentors in the teachers [/spoilers], but other than books, the community doesn’t really get any larger than that. Dylan is aware of the queer community, but rejects it, and never even seeks out queer media. She and Liza both seem to come at it from a place of “this is just who I am, it’s a very personal thing”, whereas Laura starts out that way but then becomes more aware of the queer community and seems to begin to reconcile that individual nature of being queer with being part of a queer community. I think that integration, the individual approach, is a perfectly valid thing to do, but I did like that Laura had a better opinion of the community aspect as well.

I hadn’t considered that, but that’s a very good point. That would definitely influence how her and her mother reacted. Her Mami would be trying to cling onto some semblance of a “normal” family and balk at any violation of that, and Laura wouldn’t want to further splinter her family. That makes a lot of sense.

[spoilers] Yes, I think the happily-paired-off ending is still mandatory in queer-positive teen books. We’re still getting over lesbian pulps’ endings. [/spoilers] I also was sort of puzzled by Dylan’s adoration of Joc. She has her moments, but she could also be pretty harsh. I think I just decided that the Joc featured in most of the book was different from the Joc that Dylan had started liking, because Joc was so deeply closeted (it really can eat away at you), and Dylan could still see the real Joc through that. [spoilers for all three] It’s funny, I think in all of the endings, you’re not really sure if it will work out. I mean, Joc seems pretty unstable, Annie and Liza went through this big traumatic experience and stopped speaking to each other for a while, and Laura just has this mysterious attraction to Giselle. We’re told characteristics about Giselle that seem like they would fit with Laura, but we don’t really get a chance to see them acted. It makes sense to end them that way, though, because most of us don’t end up with our high school sweethearts, but it is interesting. [/spoilers]

Rie: Community is something I thought about rereading this book, and thinking back over the lesbian YA lit that I’ve read. Down to the Bone really shines in showing that a queer community can be a really positive and empowering to experience. A lot of teen books have protagonists that are very “Oh, I’m a lesbian, but I’m just normal,I don’t need to hang out with other queer folk.” I can see how this is important to teenagers, who want to be just NORMAL, but I think that it also perpetuates the idea that hetero culture is what’s normal/the default. My outlook vastly improved when I discovered media about woman-loving women, and I think that having friends that are queer and connecting with other queer youth is a healthy and good thing. Laura was skeptical, of course, because of her upbringing, but she did seem to respect (and be a little jealous of) Tazer’s strong community bonds, and how well Soli slipped in as an ally and friend to the gay scene in Miami.

One really cute line was when Laura mentioned that she wished there was a club for lesbians to hang out and talk about books, art, activism and the environment in a really chill setting. I often wish the same thing!

A plot thread that I wish had some resolution was [spoilers] the fate of Marlena. She’s now presumably stuck in a loveless marriage, trying her damndest to be somebody that she’s not to keep her family’s love and acceptance. And she’s so young! You’d think that Paco would have brought up how their marriage was going, seeing how close he was to Marlena’s dad, so it’s odd that she’s never mentioned again after the wedding.

What did you think about Laura  dropping out of school to become a full-time gardener? I very much liked an alternative narrative (that Laura could have a fulfilling job without going to college), but wonder if it could build false hopes for young readers. After all, Laura was lucky in that she was close to Paco because of Marlena, and that she had a gift for landscape design. [/spoilers]

Danika: Yes, Down To the Bone’s positive portrayal of queer community is really one you don’t see much in other teen lesbian books. We’ve heard that line “We’re just like everyone else” so much that I think it can be damaging when we try to form queer communities, but “we’re the same as you” isn’t really true, for a variety of reasons. And you’re right, whether you find queer culture through the internet, books, movies, other media, or real life, it is often one of the first steps in really coming to terms with being queer. It’s hugely important (hence my obsession with lesbian books).

That was adorable. My girlfriend tried starting a lesbian club once… it quickly imploded in lesbian drama, which I wish was always just an inaccurate stereotype.

[spoilers] Yeah, it is odd that Marlena drops off the face of the planet, but I don’t what else could really be done with her character. She refused to talk to Laura anymore, and the rest of her story is implied: she fakes it in a loveless marriage. It is odd that the author decided to keep Laura connected to Marlena’s family, though. It creates this sort of suspense the whole book that never really amounts to anything.

I was surprised that she never went back to school, but Down To the Bone has so many “alternative” stories that I don’t think any of them can really be taken as something the author is pushing; they all just seem to be Laura’s individual life, not an experience that can be generalized. [/spoilers]

Any final thoughts on Down To the Bone? I’m really glad you recommended we read it. Thanks for discussing it with me; this was really interesting!

Rie: I think that’s a good note to end on!

Have you read Down to the Bone? What did you think of it?

 

Guest Lesbrarian: Heather

We’ve got another Guest Lesbrarian today: Heather. She’s reviewing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a lesbian classic.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

I only recently discovered GoodReads (I know, it’s like I’ve been living under a rock!), and I’ve been reading lots of their lists.  It occurred to me that perhaps as a good lesbian I should try reading more gay fiction.  I’ve read some, of course (including Stone Butch Blues, which I shared a little bit about in my last Top Ten Post)  But really,  if I don’t want to have to give back my toaster oven I should have a passing knowledge of important works in the GLBT genre.

With that in mind I ordered Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.  It is really a roman a clef of the author’s early years in Northern England.  The main character, Jeanette, is the adopted daughter of a fundamentalist Christian couple. Her mother adopted her in order to raise her up to give to the Lord as a missionary for His cause.  From early days, however, Jeanette shows that she is her own person and will not be forced into someone else’s ideas about what she should be.  As she grows up, she becomes  more and more rebellious-and she falls in love.  With a GIRL!  Let’s just say that her relationship with her mother really starts to go downhill after the failed exorcism…that’s right, they tried to exorcise the gay right out of her!

Winterson has a dry, witty sense of humor that makes what could be a tragic story of betrayal and loss into something altogether more powerful.  At not one point in the story did Jeanette doubt that God meant her to be the way she was.  The people in her church loved her, thought she had a calling to preaching and missionary work-until they found out she was gay.  Suddenly, the leadership decided that maybe women were getting above their true place in the church, and should no longer be allowed to preach.  Apparently Jeanette’s love for Katy convinced them that she was trying to be a man.  But not once did Jeanette waver in her belief that what she was and how she felt was as natural as loving the Lord, which she did with fervor.  Usually reading about religious fundamentalists makes me a little twitchy, but Winterson handled them in such a way that while I completely disagree with almost everything about the way they view life and God, I couldn’t help but accept and respect their humanity.  Jeanette says, at one point in the book, that she loved the Lord-it was some of his followers that she had problems with. She eventually finds her way out of the insular world she was raised in, first through her prodigious imagination, and finally by physically moving to the big city.  But she can’t completely leave behind her mother and her religious fervor.  The book concludes with Jeanette going home for Christmas to find her mother perched by the ham radio, networking with other born-again Christians for prayer, support, and most of all the conversion of the rest of us Godless souls.  Despite the new life Jeanette has found for herself, it is almost like she is comforted somehow by the idea that while she is off in the world, her mother stays behind, fighting other people’s demons one prayer request at a time.  I guess this is probably true of all of us.  No matter how much we may try to separate ourselves from where we come from, the fact remains that we carry those people and experiences around with us into every new town, new job, or new relationship that we have.

Thanks, Heather! I adore Jeanette Winterson, it’s good to see her getting some reviews. If you want to check out Heather’s book blog, it’s Book Addict’s Book Reviews.

Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or another Jeanette Winterson book? What did you think of it?

I’m always looking for more guest posts! If you’ve read a lesbrary (woman-loving-woman book) lately, go to the Guest Lesbrarians link and submit a review!